Over the next couple of weeks, each NBA team will be challenged with whittling their roster down to a maximum of 15 players. Training camps for each team kicked off within the past week, with the first action of preseason now upon us.
There were already some games over the weekend that tipped off the 2016-17 preseason schedule, with seven more scheduled for Monday night. With so few roster spots available, guys all over the league on non-guaranteed contracts will be looking to do everything they can to make a lasting impression. In all, over 125 players will be cut by opening night.
For the next few weeks, it’ll be interesting to see how the battles for roster spots play out. While teams can carry up to 15 players, many choose to keep the last roster spot open in order to maintain some flexibility. With so many players set to be cut, a team may want to sign one of those players and may keep an open roster spot just in case.
One team that looks to have some good competition for their last remaining roster spots is the Orlando Magic. Players like Cliff Alexander, Branden Dawson, Nick Johnson, Kevin Murphy, Arinze Onuaku and Damjan Rudez will all be battling for the team’s last two roster spots. Depending on how the team chooses to set its final roster, there could be as many as six players competing for one spot.
One player who could potentially make a strong case for that final place is Alexander. The 6’8 power forward figures to be an option because of his ability to add toughness to the frontcourt. New Magic head coach Frank Vogel has said in the past that toughness is something he wants to see more of from the team, and Alexander is a player who fits that mold.
Alexander’s path to the Magic is unconventional and, quite frankly, surprising to many who followed him when he was a top-five recruit coming out of high school. He would eventually attend Kansas, where he was projected to be a high lottery pick before he even played a minute of college basketball. His lone season at Kansas was filled with ups and downs, including a foot injury that hampered his development. He appeared in 28 games for the Jayhawks, averaging 7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 17.6 minutes per game. Despite not receiving a lot of playing time, his per-36 averages of 14.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks offered a glimpse into what he could provide a team when given an increased role.
After one season at Kansas, Alexander declared for the draft after his eligibility came into question following a suspension by the university. Even though he turned in a solid season at Kansas, Alexander went undrafted in the 2015 draft. He spent last season with the Portland Trail Blazers and would appear in just eight games. Now on his second team in as many seasons, Alexander has one goal during training camp.
“Just battle, compete my ass off and just show these guys I ain’t no punk,” Alexander told Basketball Insiders. “I’m a young guy; that’s what they figure to realize and try to pick on me a little bit. But I’m from Chicago. I ain’t having none of that.”
The Magic were one of many teams that took advantage of the rising salary cap this offseason, resulting in management committing about $110 million to the 13 players on guaranteed deals for this upcoming season. Bismack Biyombo highlighted the spending spree, while the team also signed free agents Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin. Of course, they also re-signed restricted free agent Evan Fournier and acquired Serge Ibaka, Jodie Meeks and C.J. Wilcox through separate trades.
The team made these moves with the goal of competing for a playoff spot this season. They have missed the playoffs four seasons in a row, which is a franchise-high, and feel as though these additions can help them return to the postseason. They have spent the previous four years rebuilding, and now want to end that phase and return to playing at a high level.
Trying to project where Alexander and the other five players on non-guaranteed training camp deals will ultimately end up seems a bit difficult at the moment. With a team desperately looking to return to the playoffs, it remains to be seen just how many minutes will be available for players in a developmental role. It seems likely that most of these players could spend a portion of the season with the Magic’s D-League affiliate, the Erie BayHawks.
Alexander could also have a tough time cracking into a frontcourt that features Nikola Vucevic, Ibaka, Biyombo, Aaron Gordon and Green. However, at the same time, Alexander seems content in any role that Vogel and the coaching staff asks of him. Coaches love players who can impact games with hustle plays, and it seems as though Alexander could be that guy for the Magic. He’s spent much of the summer working out in order to prepare for this opportunity in Orlando.
“I talked to my mom and my dad and they just told me to stay strong and move forward,” Alexander said. “That’s what I did and I came to work out and work harder. I feel like I’m a much better player. [I] got a lot more aggressive on the rebounds, working on my 15-to-18 foot jump shot and just running the floor and being aggressive. I got with the assistant general manger three weeks ago, [he] sent me some clips of Tristan Thompson [and] Bismack [Biyombo] when he was in Toronto of how aggressive they were on the rebounds.”
Putting together a great showing in camp could lead to Alexander sticking around on the Magic’s roster. The team could opt to have him begin the year in Erie, let him to continue to develop his game and then potentially call him up later in the season. Regardless of where he starts the year, Alexander seems ready for the challenge of showcasing his game to the Magic and the rest of the league.
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